Tour of duty

Tevel b'Tzedek hopes to inspire Israeli youth. So why does it bring its recruits all the way to Katmandu?

evel btzedek (photo credit: Courtesy)
evel btzedek
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabi, a 14-year-old Nepalese orphan, stood on a stage in the dilapidated auditorium of a slum school in the Kalamati neighborhood of Katmandu playing the lead role in an amateur theater production. Before an audience of about 200, he acted out the story of a young boy whose mother had died during the 10-year civil war between Maoists and royalists that ended in 2006 and whose father was seriously ill. Rabi's character got a job to pay for his father's medication, but he was unable to earn enough and his father died. A social worker found a place for him in a shelter for orphans. It was a sad story. It is the story of Rabi's life. "When Rabi got up on stage and told his story, it was probably the most intense moment of three very intense months in Nepal," recalls Yotam Pulizer, 25, who formed a theater troupe of destitute Nepalese youths like Rabi as part of a program called Tevel b'Tzedek (The Earth - In Justice), a non-profit for social and environmental justice. Pulizer, who returned to his home in Mitzpe Harashim in the North last week from several months of backpacking in South Asia, met Tevel b'Tzedek while in Nepal. The trip that started off as part vacation, part adventure turned into an opportunity to give. Tevel b'Tzedek is seeking to add a social activist dimension to a custom that has become a sort of rite of passage for Israeli youth. Some 50,000 post-army backpackers pass through South Asia every year, likely the largest group of travelers per capita of any nationality. Thousands more travel through South America and other Third World locations. Most come to wind down after their mandatory stint in the IDF. These backpackers come to Nepal to escape the conflict with the Palestinians; to smoke cheap and potent Indian hashish; to embrace a culture untouched by the complicated anti-Semitic history of the West; to experience an exotic spirituality that is both intoxicating and non-committing; to enjoy the physical beauty of the countryside; to forge friendships and romances. But many also come because they are sensitive, curious and idealistic. Filled with an inchoate need for meaning, purpose and faith, they set out on a search which is both physically and spiritually demanding. Often they end up wandering aimlessly, never really finding themselves. The founder of Tevel b'Tzedek, Rabbi Micha Odenheimer, 49, a student of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach who received rabbinic ordination from halachic authority Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, hopes to harness some of the energies expended on the vague youthful search for meaning and to channel them into constructive Jewish social activism projects as part of a larger campaign for tikkun olam, repairing the world. He hopes to use young Israelis' obligatory trip to a Third World locale as an opportunity to inspire them to confront the suffering and powerlessness of the world's poor and attempt to fix the negative aspects of globalization. SO FAR two groups - one of 16 and one of 18 - have been sent to Nepal since Tevel b'Tzedek was founded last year. Another is slated to leave at the end of March. Most of the people taking part are post-army Israelis aged 22 to 24. But there are a few Hebrew-speaking Jews from Canada, the UK and the US. And there are also a handful of older professionals with specific training and skills. "Tevel b'Tzedek was born out of a feeling that what happens to the poor and powerless of the world is humanity's greatest ethical challenge," says Odenheimer, a Yale graduate who receives funding from the UJA Federation of New York, the Shusterman Foundation, the Rochlin Family Foundation, the Pears Foundation and the Wolfensohn Family Foundation. "Judaism and Israel should be involved in the discourse on how to shape the world's future." Odenheimer says he is displeased with the direction Israeli society is headed. He criticizes the Finance Ministry's neoconservative economic policies such as aggressive privatization, weakening organized labor and strict fiscal discipline that, he says, have trampled small business interests, exacerbated social inequalities and destroyed the education system. "I believe in the market as an important part of a healthy economy," says Odenheimer, "but today we are in danger of creating an ethos in which greed is celebrated more than sacrifice." In a counterintuitive move, Odenheimer hopes to make an impact on Tel Aviv by bringing talented young people to Katmandu. But not everyone buys his reasoning. In fact, he admitted, the immediate response some have to Tevel b'Tzedek's work is that instead of running off to solve the problems of the Nepalese, the organization should stay put and address the myriad problems at home. Michalya Schonwald, who took part in the pilot of Tevel b'Tzedek and is now deputy international director involved in PR, planning, fund-raising and recruitment, says a primary goal is to create graduates who will continue at home the social activism they started in Nepal. "For sure there are a lot of problems in Israel," says Schonwald, 29, a graduate of Columbia University, who was involved in fostering Palestinian-Israeli reconciliation before being accepted to Tevel b'Tzedek. "We are creating a variety of posts here to help graduates collaborate with local social justice groups. We are also establishing a seed fund to help graduates implement new projects." But if the objective is to encourage people to get involved in social activism locally, why does Tevel b'Tzedek bring its recruits all the way to Katmandu? "So many Israelis are interested in Nepal and other Third World countries," Schonwald says. "We want to give that journey a different, deeper context. Israelis will go there not as tourists but as change makers. And the experience there will be brought back home. "Besides, what happens while people are there is a real transformation. They are suddenly opened to Third World issues and this sheds new light on how they view issues back at home. They also realize that the Third World is not that far away." LIOR MESSING, 22, a graduate of Tevel b'Tzedek who grew up in Ramat Gan, brought back the social activism she learned in Nepal. Her work with Nepalese foreign workers in Tel Aviv - a continuation of her work in Nepal - is proof of the global village. Messing joined an organization based in Tel Aviv called Mesila that provides "empowerment" courses for Nepalese women, most of whom are working as caregivers to the elderly and mentally disabled. "We provide them with information on foreign workers' rights and visa issues," Messing says. "We help them cope with the treatment of their patients by giving them deeper understanding of Alzheimer's and mental retardation. We also counsel them on issues such as sexual harassment in the workplace." During her stay in Nepal Messing worked with an organization called Prayas that was created by and for street children. It focuses on fighting drug abuse (mostly glue sniffing) and child prostitution. According to Ambassador to Nepal Dan Stav, Tevel b'Tzedek is revamping the stereotype of the Israeli backpacker as a loud, boisterous consumer more interested in having a good time then showing an interest or empathy for the plight of the natives. "I am happy to say that Tevel b'Tzedek is an idea that has had a positive impression on Nepalese," he says by phone from Katmandu, adding that the local population is not aware of the geopolitical issues of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. "Most Nepalese are mainly indifferent to the Israelis who pass through. They are seen primarily as a source of income. But Tevel b'Tzedek brought people who exhibit very high levels of ability and idealism. They go beyond the normal curiosity of the backpacker and are actually having an impact here." Stav says that the embassy helps Tevel b'Tzedek sort through the thousands of NGOs and INGOs that operate in Nepal and choose the serious ones. Participants then volunteer at these organizations, both local and international, helping to fight the trafficking of women, child abuse and drug abuse. Nepal, with a population of about 28 million, was devastated by the civil war that has led to an unstable quasi-republic governed by seven different parties, including the Maoists and the royalists. Annual gross national income per capita was $290 in 2006, according to World Bank figures. In contrast, GNI per capita in Israel was $20,000. Taking steps to reduce the shocking socioeconomic disparity between western economies and Nepal's is a primary goal of Tevel b'Tzedek. But the nearly insurmountable challenges are daunting and the tiny organization cannot ever hope to solve them all. Rather, Odenheimer hopes to become a catalyst for the overhauling of Zionism's foreign policy priorities. "Zionism was once dominated by idealists in search of a state whose socially just policies would make the Jews a 'light onto the nations,'" he says. "For many Zionists, the State of Israel was a means of healing that split between universalism and communal solidarity. Anchored in a place, a language, a nation that we could call our own, we could begin to act in the world without fear of losing our identity. "Israel in the 1950s and 1960s, committed to democratic socialism, poised in its own development somewhere between the First World and the Third, spent a hefty 30 percent of its Foreign Ministry budget on agricultural, medical and other aid programs in Africa and elsewhere. Thousands of Third World nurses, doctors and social workers came to Israel for training. "It didn't last. The Yom Kippur War, during which many Third World nations, threatened by an oil embargo, cut off relations with Israel, marked the end of much of this activity. Then, through the 1990s - the Oslo years - as peace seemed inevitable, the idea of a renewed integration of Jewish specificity and Jewish universalism grew compelling. But the breakdown of Oslo, the almost daily suicide bombings during the second intifada and, more recently, the war with Hizbullah and the widespread embrace of classic anti-Semitic belief in fundamentalist Iran, not to mention the threat of nuclear weapons, have reawakened Jewish existential fear of annihilation and that sense of Jewish foreboding." Odenheimer believes that the only way to heal the rupture between the universalistic and particularistic aspects of Judaism is to show that while there might be tension between the two there is no contradiction. He and other teachers at Tevel b'Tzedek try to show this duality through the teaching of Jewish texts and through the keeping of Jewish customs such as kosher food (vegetarian), respect for the Shabbat (without coercion) and prayer, while at the same time actively engaging in social and environmental activism. Uriel Simon, professor emeritus of Bible at Bar-Ilan University, is one of the teachers who come to Katmandu to make an argument for Jewish social activism. "Most of the participants in the program are secular and they tend to have a romantic attraction to Eastern religions which are seen as superior to the particularism of Judaism," he says. "My challenge is to show them a universalistic aspect of Judaism that they did not know existed. Meanwhile, the religious participants might feel threatened by universalistic ideals that cast in doubt their 'chosenness.' They have more of a tendency toward collectivism and closing themselves off to the suffering of others in the global village that we live in." Simon says that he resolves the tension between the universalistic and the particularistic aspects of Judaism by "bringing the nations of the world into Jewish theology." "God did not only create Israel. He created millions of others as well. We cannot ignore their existence, their suffering their success." Pulizer, a self-proclaimed secular Jew, says that he learned from Simon the universalistic dimension of Judaism. "I've always been bothered by the idea that the Jewish people considers itself chosen," he says. "I always saw this as a type of haughty condescension on our part. But through discussions, lectures and seminars, I've learned that Jewish chosenness has nothing to do with being better than other nations. Chosenness means that as a Jew I have more moral responsibility for bringing about tikkun olam."